The future colonization of the Moon and Mars will be conditioned by the possibility of guaranteeing the production of food on their surfaces. Taking a kilo of tomatoes (or any other product) to the Earth's satellite costs a million euro, so eating a salad in space is a very expensive luxury. Therefore, this is currently a priority for international space agencies. However, the challenges for space agriculture go beyond having the most suitable soil composition or the possibility of obtaining oxygen and water. The crops have to be developed in a different gravity, one-sixth lower than the one on Earth, and under higher levels of cosmic radiation.
More than 3,000 teams in the world are working to overcome all these barriers. One of the most advanced groups is the Spanish Green Moon Project, which started at the University of Malaga, is led by the 27-year-old Andalusian engineer Jose Maria Ortega Hernandez, is currently based in The United Kingdom, and has signed an agreement with the Chongqing University Space Exploration Center to experiment with crops in space after the Chinese probe Chang'e 4 that landed on the far side of the moon in January of last year managed to get a cotton seed to sprout there; the first plant to grow on the satellite.
The Green Moon Project, which includes the participation of the Cabildo and the Lanzarote Geopark, the Institute of Geosciences and the Spanish Network of Planetology and Astrobiology, is already conducting trials on the Canary Island. “The basaltic regolith [layer of unconsolidated materials] on Lanzarote is very similar to the one on the Moon,” Ortega said. Researchers are using this soil and other soils that they have altered with a higher and lower concentration of metals to investigate how the plant obtains the nutrients to grow. In addition, Lanzarote has lava tubes that are similar to the ones on the Moon, which would be one of the best spaces for the space gardens because they would protect them from cosmic radiation.
In 2022, they plan to send the first specimens to the moon with a Chinese mission to investigate how the first plants grow there. These specimens could be of tomato, lettuce, lentil, cucumber, or pepper.
Innoplant, an award-winning Andalusian company specialized in research on the adaptation of soils to crops, is also participating in this effort. Ortega believes that the moon will have its first greenhouses by mid-century; a fundamental step for the exploitation of the satellite and for the next challenge: Mars.